It’s been nearly a year since the first season of Thirteen Reasons Why was released, and it’s only become more controversial as the months have passed. The second season just arrived on Netflix las week and many people are questioning whether it should have been renewed for another season in the first place.
Adding to the initial controversy is the fact that Jay Asher, who wrote the book Thirteen Reasons Why is based on, has recently been accused of sexual harassment. Because of these allegations, he was expelled from the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Asher denied the allegations.
In an Exposé podcast last year, CEO of The Tempest Laila Alawa sat down to talk to guests Kayria Taghdi and Katie Kaestner about Thirteen Reasons Why. They discussed the merits of the show as well as its potential harms. The show graphically depicted a suicide, bullying and abuse, social isolation, mental health issues, and sexual assault. It even hinted at the possibility of gun violence at the end of the first episode.
There are many good aspects of the show, of course. While I didn’t grow up in the US and thus am unfamiliar with the cultural context of the show, I feel like it’s quite realistic in its portrayal of high school politics. As someone who’s experienced suicide ideation and mental illness, I felt that the last few episodes depicted suicide in a fairly relatable, realistic way.
The podcast guests concluded that the show can’t positively change opinions about rape culture. I don’t necessarily think this is true, because it does show how the school system – including staff members – protects rapists. When Hannah tries to talk to her school guidance counselor about the fact that she was sexually assaulted, he used typical victim-blaming tactics on her. In my opinion, this was meant to anger the audience and prompt them into talking about rape culture. I don’t know whether it definitely improved people’s opinions, but as someone who’s been assaulted, I felt validated by it.
That said, I have a lot of reservations about Thirteen Reasons Why. I am sure that the show prompted some constructive conversations – but at what cost? A study noted that Google searches around suicide – including searches for information on how to commit suicide – skyrocketed after the show was released.
According to reports, Netflix was advised by suicide prevention groups not to show Hannah committing suicide, as it could trigger suicidal people and those with PTSD. Netflix went ahead and did it anyway. It’s reminiscent of when Netflix was warned about depicting eating disorders in To The Bone, as many of the scenes could trigger those with eating disorders. In both cases, it felt like Netflix was capitalizing on a growing awareness of mental health issues without caring about the people who were affected by it the most.
Many of us know our triggers, and we’d avoid depictions of suicide if we knew it would trigger us. However, there are many people who don’t know what their triggers are and what might push them over the edge. This is why “If you don’t like it, simply don’t watch it” is a problematic attitude to have – it’s not about whether you’d like the show, but how it would affect you and your mental health. Similarly, most people might not know their triggers. It’s possible that the show can trigger people and they won’t realize until it’s too late.
This is especially true for young people, who are given very little space to discuss their mental health and reflect on their emotional wellness. As Laila says in the podcast, teenagers are more impressionable than adults – something that is demonstrated by neuropsychology. Since young people – including teenagers and preeteens – are the target audience for the show, this is particularly worrying.
So what’s to be done now that the show’s second season is out there? As mentioned in the podcast, many high schools were banning conversations on Thirteen Reasons Why, thinking these conversations could promote suicide.
As Laila mentions in the podcast, conversations on mental health are stigmatized enough. Although Thirteen Reasons Why can potentially be harmful, people will inevitably talk about it whether they like the show or not. For that reason, it’s essential that schools use it as an opportunity to promote positive coping mechanisms and to destigmatize mental illness and suicide. Ignoring the existence of the show isn’t a constructive move.
The first season of Thirteen Reasons Why taps into a lot of important conversations, and the second season is bound to do the same. That said, the show is not beyond reproach. The potential gain of “sparking conversations” is not necessarily worth the fact that it’s triggered people and even encouraged people to commit suicide. So, while I’ll watch the second season to satiate my own curiosity, I don’t buy that it’s great for society.